This week for my final blog on a topic within the field of attention I would like to discuss it’s span; how long we humans can focus on a task without distraction. It has been argued (I have not found scientific evidence) that the majority of healthy teenagers and adults cannot sustain attention on one thing for more than forty minutes without a break. We can renew our attention e.g. with long movies, but after forty minutes we are much quicker to leave the current task and grasp another train of thought that takes our fancy. It is also suggested that our attention span is longer for tasks we enjoy and are intrinsically motivated to complete; therefore transforming the education system into something it’s pupils can enjoy and want to succeed at seems imperative.
Studies of attention span are not only concerned with how we can re-apply ourselves to a specific task or material, but how our attention can influence our learning. Bosse and Valdois (2009) explored how reading performance is modulated by visual attention (VA) span; children require an attention span capable of, say, processing every letter in a long word. Orthographic knowledge relies on VA abilities and this relationship further explains the academic performance of those with attention deficit disorders. Early in the semester I took interest in Alec’s Blog and his focus on the effect of television on children; I was a keen follower of Sesame Street as a child and wanted to know more about the cost and benefits of a media medium we use to death. Christakis, Zimmerman, DiGiuseppe and McCarty (2004) explored the effects of television exposure for one-to-three year olds on their attention in later life. They found that early exposure to television was associated with attention problems whilst controlling for factors like prenatal drug abuse, socioeconomic status and a number of other possible confounding variables. Whilst the researchers standard for attention problems was not necessarily correlated with clinically diagnosed ADHD and there are no studies linking early television viewing and ADHD, the study suggests that limiting television exposure in young children is prudent with other factors such as obesity and violent behaviour being taken into account.
Since studying neuroplasticity in more depth and reporting the positive effects meditation, physical exercise and music can have on its development; it has only solidified my view that engaging in mentally stimulating tasks improves our brain health. The experiment of Malcarne (1793) using animals brain dissections to research the state of the nervous system revealed that a subject’s cerebellum grew substantially larger with training compared to controls confirmed the concept of a plastic, fluid and non-fixed cognition system. In developed and modern developing countries Internet use is astoundingly high, as students we use it everyday for tasks such as this blog. Whilst the web is used for so many aspects of life e.g. social networking, shopping and information, we have not considered whether there is a cost to this rapid access if information. Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves To Death, argues that modern advances like television and the internet are decreasing our attention span. Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer (2008) explored the influence of Internet experience on brain activation in an effort to answer questions posed by individuals like Postman. Whilst the study fails to elucidate the positive and negative aspects of regular internet searching, it does show a significant difference in neural pathways of internet users and their counterparts in both book reading and internet search tasks.
In previous blogs I have argued that attention is a skill to be sharpened; this has been expressed somewhat in the work of Binder, Haughton and Van Eyk (1990) who explored the effectiveness of teachers creating bespoke learning environments based on a child’s attention span, with a focus on those with deficits. This research found that fluency of a topic or skill predicts how long the student will endure it; practice periods should increase as the subject makes advances, the researchers highlighted the importance of reducing task time to measure peak performance and keep students engaged.
Despite the eclectic nature of this blog’s research, I think I have addressed some issues faced in area of attention span; attention is limited (as Kahneman argued), we can train this skill to last longer and to some degree, activities that require a more sedentary approach e.g. television and the internet have an effect on such a skill. Whether that effect is positive or negative is subject to further research and dismantling attention into smaller subsections of study. What is clear (congruent with my previous blogs on attention) is that what we do with our brains predicts what we are able to do; the more we do, the more we can do. Attention is vital for our everyday experience; our ability to enjoy this experience and feel relatively in control (not propelled by extrinsic forces) shapes our performance and wellbeing. Our ability to not only pay attention to our experience effectively but our reactions to that experience are vital for emotional and attentional regulation, a skill that we should hold in high esteem and impress upon children who need it most.
Binder, C, V., Haughton, E., & Van Eyk, D. (1990). Increasing endurance by building fluency; Precision teaching attention span. Teaching exceptional children, 22(3), 24-27.
Bosse, M. & Valdois, S. (2009). Influence of the visual attention span on child reading performance: a cross-sectional study. Journal of Research in Reading, 32, (2), pp 230–253. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2008.01387.x
Christakis, D, A., Zimmerman, F, J., DiGiuseppe, D, L. & McCarty, C, A. (2004). Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children. PEDIATRICS Vol. 113 (4) p 708
Small, G, W., Moody, T, D., Siddarth, P. & Bookheimer, S, Y. (2009). Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry; 17:116–126